Observers of recent political developments in Thailand should rightly feel unnerved by the increasingly cavalier rhetoric of Mr. Suthep Thaungsuban, the former Democrat MP now turned seditious activist and protest leader. Speaking to crowds of demonstrators at Democracy Monument last Friday night, Suthep referred to Pheua Thai’s bitterly despised Amnesty Bill as “the poisonous fruit of the poisonous tree.” He then went on to explain to his admirers that “the poisonous tree is the Thaksin regime which needs to be uprooted”, by which he essentially means Yingluck’s democratically-elected Pheua Thai government must be overthrown.
Since announcing his resignation from parliament on Monday last week, Suthep has not only assumed leadership of the anti-bill demonstrations at Democracy Monument, but has also stepped up their demands and widened their scope. What began merely as a campaign to oppose the ill-conceived Amnesty Bill has since evolved into a fully fledged movement for regime change, aimed at dissolving the current Pheua Thai administration. Suthep’s personal input has been instrumental in obtaining this transformation, which might not have been possible without a rabble-rousing firebrand like himself taking the helm of the movement. Indeed, with the Senate voting unanimously against the Amnesty Bill just last week, the original demands of the demonstrators have effectively been realised. Prime Minister Yingluck has pledged not to revive the bill after its statutory 180-day spell in parliament expires, and civil society actors from all across the political spectrum have condemned the very idea of an amnesty bill as despotic, outrageous and unacceptable. So with the curious case of the Amnesty Bill essentially closed, shouldn’t it be time for the protestors to pack up and go home? Well, not according to Mr. Suthep.
Suthep is currently trying to harness the immense magnitude of the anti-bill movement and fashion it into a popular campaign to overthrow the government. As we know all too well, the usual way to overthrow a government in Thailand is by resort to military coup or some form of judicial technicality, such as that which brought down former Prime Minister-cum-TV chef, Samak Sundaravej, in 2008. Military intervention at this stage in the Amnesty Bill fallout seems extremely unlikely, however, since it would obliterate the unspoken detente between Prime Minister Yingluck and the leadership of the Royal Thai Army (particularly Generals Prayut and Anupong), and it would unleash a backlash of popular resistance on a scale not seen since the Red Shirt demonstrations of 2010. Moreover, the memory of the September 2006 coup which brought down the original “Thaksin regime” — and thus produced an ongoing cavalcade of political crises in Thailand — is, thankfully, still too fresh in the minds of the generals and the electorate. So, with a military coup almost inconceivable at this particular juncture, it seems that Suthep will have to instigate a slightly more novel form of rebellion, comprised of both the usual judicial trickery and popular resistance measures.
Step one of Suthep’s grand plan to unseat the government is to submit a petition to the National Anti-Corruption Commission calling for the impeachment of Prime Minister Yingluck and the rest of the 310 MPs who voted in favour of the Amnesty Bill on the grounds that they have failed in administering the country, governed in self-interest, committed corruption and caused social division. This, it is hoped, would rid the parliament of Thaksin’s “servants” — so branded by Suthep — and bring about fresh elections on a skewed playing field more advantageous to the Democrats. So far over 50 Democrat MPs have already signed the petition, and thousands of anti-bill demonstrators have queued up at Democracy Monument to add their names to the list.
Step two is to pinpoint and vilify Thaksin’s “sidekicks” — again, so-called by Suthep — by (quite literally) blowing whistles at them whenever they appear in public. The humble whistle seems to be a weapon of choice for the eccentric Suthep, whose zealous endorsement of organised, mass tooting sessions has already inspired several so-called “whistle-blowing rall[ies]” in the Silom district of Bangkok. Thaksin’s known “sidekicks” in government, according to Suthep, include figures such as Department of Special Investigation chief, Tarit Pengdith, parliament president, Somsak Kiatsuranon, and Senate Speaker, Nikhom Wiratpanich, each of whom are now firmly in the crosshairs of thousands of indignant whistlers – from Bangkok and beyond.
The third part of Suthep’s plan is to boycott all goods and services currently linked to the Shinawatra family or Pheua Thai government. A list of 40 such firms whose managers or shareholders are suspected of having Thaksinite or Pheua Thai affiliations has already been written up by an anonymous penman and published online for the benefit of Suthep’s campaign. Thaksin’s commercial empire is indeed still vast and highly influential in Thailand, however, many firms which now deny having any links with Thaksin or Pheu Thai have nonetheless appeared on the list of boycott targets. Advanced Info Service (AIS) is one such company. Last week AIS chief, Wichian Mektrakarn, claimed that AIS and its parent company Intouch have not been affiliated with Thaksin since the infamous sale of his family’s 49% share of Shin Corporation, which netted the Shinawatra’s a grand total of 73billion baht when it was snapped up by Singapore-based Temasek Holdings in early 2006. In any case, even the most concerted effort to boycott a man whose known assets are said to be worth $1.7 billion seems, somehow, predestined to be a thankless task.
Suthep’s fourth and final gambit involves a protracted period of civil disobedience, crudely aimed at disrupting the day-to-day administering of the country. Suthep’s enthusiasm for civil disobedience found some expression last week prior to his declaration of war against the Pheua Thai government, when he called for a nation-wide, three day strike designed to disrupt the handling of the Amnesty Bill. Officially plotted for 13-16 November 2013, Suthep’s appeal was largely ignored by his sympathisers beyond the gatherings at Democracy Monument, and the hoped-for strike ultimately came to nothing. Still, this particular tactical misfire seems not to have dampened Suthep’s faith in the efficacy of civil disobedience. Most recently Suthep has been heard repeatedly admonishing his supporters to withhold their tax payments until the Pheua Thai government is dissolved.
Incendiary proclamations of this sort simply do not bode well for Thailand at large. Of course, the Amnesty Bill debacle was an extraordinary affront to even the most basic notions of democracy and jurisprudence, not to mention it being flagrantly unconstitutional. This much is indisputable. However, Suthep’s calls to overthrow the government because of the Amnesty Bill fiasco only serves to obfuscate the fundamental issues at play. If Suthep truly believes that Yingluck and Pheu Thai have jettisoned their democratic mandate by conspiring to put an unconstitutional bill through parliament, then where does that leave him and his own party? In recent years the Democrats have presided over some of the most unconstitutional wrecks in Thai history, most egregiously the cold-blooded murder of over 90 Thai citizens during the April/May 2010 Red Shirt demonstrations. Should not Suthep and the rest of his (now former) party members who orchestrated the killings have been impeached and imprisoned long ago? Of course they should, as should the military generals with whom they colluded in their orgy of extrajudicial slaughter. Unfortunately, however, we now have a political situation in Thailand where both elite camps have such a tremendous amount of blood on their hands that it is now quite simply impossible for either side to rule with what you might call really real legitimacy.
For over a decade now we have been witnessing a bifurcation of the Thai elite. On the one hand you have the military top brass who orchestrated the 2006 coup, the Democrat party, the Privy Council and the palace; and on the other you have Thaksin, Yingluck and a loose constellation of pro-Thaksin tycoons, oligarchs and figures within the military. Both camps have been jostling for elite supremacy and total power ever since the rampant nepotism and corruption of the Thai Rak Thai regime reached fever pitch in early 2006, thus engendering the September 19th coup which secured the initial removal of Thaksin from the arena of government. Thaksin’s crimes from his time in office are indeed extensive and many of them are corruption-related, yet we must not overlook the more profound transgressions of the Thai Rak Thai era, which include some undeniably more heinous abuses of power than a mere conflict of interests or concealing of assets. Let’s be clear, Thaksin is a mass-murderer complicit in the deaths of thousands of Thais. If we enumerate both his gung-ho escalation of the Deep South conflict from 2004 onwards, as well as the catastrophic ‘War on Drugs’ of 2003, then we can start to get a picture of the colossal wastage of human life caused as a direct result of Thaksin’s barbarous policies. Additionally, as mentioned earlier, the Democrat Party and the military generals with whom Yingluck is now conspiring to conjure amnesty bills also have a long list of murders and other kinds of criminality to account for.
To me what’s most shocking about the discourse of the Amnesty Bill and its aftermath is the observable dearth of principled, human rights-based condemnation of state murder. Indeed, the very reason that Suthep and most other anti-Thaksin firebrands so despise Thaksin is not for his credentials as a cold-blooded killer, but for his reputation as a corrupt politician who ‘sold out’ and ‘destabilised’ the nation. Though of course it would be impossible for someone like Suthep to criticise Thaksin on human-rights grounds, for he too ought to be facing murder charges for his role in the 2010 massacre of Red Shirt demonstrators. Clearly, the absence of human rights-inspired discourse in Thai politics today is a simultaneous cause and effect of the multitudinous human rights violations piled up on both sides of the elite division. The more grisly points such as this one ought to be feeding into the wider debate about legitimacy in Thailand, which is currently enduring a fresh round of obfuscation thanks to the outspoken rhetoric of men like Suthep. Sadly, however, plain and simple respect for human life as well as an adherence to rights-based discourse seems a fairly distant fantasy in Thailand today.
Personally, I am hoping that the Red Shirt movement will be galvanized by Yingluck’s gross betrayal of their most salient interests, which, if it wasn’t clear enough already, is now patently obvious for all to see. Begetting justice for the 2010 bloodbath and an amnesty for all prisoners convicted of lese majeste must remain the focus of the Red Shirt camp, and the movement can indeed capitalise on the debacle of the Amnesty Bill. For a long time observers like Giles Ji Ungpakorn, sadly still in exile, have been arguing for the Red Shirt movement to relinquish their support for Pheau Thai. I entirely agree that such a breakaway is imperative for the Red Shirt movement should it wish to see the realisation of its most heartfelt and valuable objectives. Unlike Thorn Pitidol, who wrote for New Mandala last week, I do not see the Amnesty Bill fiasco as an omen for “the end of the Red Shirts.” If anything, the Red Shirt movement will have step up and counter the fiery rhetoric of Mr. Suthep, who has already called for a 1 million strong force to assemble in Bangkok and topple the government. Now, I am not proposing that the Red Shirts hastily concoct some kind of pre-emptive putsch, however, they cannot let the balance of discursive forces tip in the favour of Suthep at such a crucial time. They must be pro-active and infinitely vocal in their condemnation of the Amnesty Bill farce and Suthep’s incipient rebellion, but not to the extent that it creates insurmountable havoc and disorder in the capital, which, as we know from past experience, is always a cue for the security forces to step in and take advantage of the unrest – with predictably ugly results.
Most of all I am advocating for some calculated restraint on both sides. Although I do, of course, despise Suthep to his very core, I understand his motives for opposing the Amnesty Bill, however misplaced they be. But, and this is my main point, his campaign to overthrow government in the wake of the bill’s unambiguous demise, is not only deleterious to Thailand on a practical level — in other words, it disrupts the ordinary running of government — but it also poisons the political culture in Thailand by making it seem acceptable to call for an outright seizure of power whenever some disgruntled politician feels like it. The last thing Thailand needs, given the tribulations of recent years, is another protracted period of instability. Mass movements for regime change from either side will not solve Thailand’s woes at any rate, but they will most certainly escalate an already fragile and ominous political stalemate. In any case, the fact remains that Yingluck is still the leader of a democratically elected government, chosen by a majority of the Thai people to administer the state on behalf of all. She may now be a scorned Prime Minister and a despicable traitor, but she still has two more years left in office before the next election, during which time the Red Shirts will need to seriously distance themselves from Pheu Thai and begin to cultivate a new, truly proletarian political force, independent of the elite hierarchy that has long monopolised the Pheua Thai agenda, particularly Thaksin.
If the Red Shirts can achieve this then we may yet see justice for the victims of 2010, and an end to the gross anachronism that is lese majeste. In the meantime Suthep ought to surrender his campaign to overthrow the government, or else risk having direct culpability for the ensuing and stifling crisis which it would undoubtedly cause. Seditious and incendiary rhetoric of the Suthep (or Sondhi Limthongkul) kind has always had a demonstrably negative effect on Thai political discourse; it undermines democracy, encourages reckless political fanaticism, and plays right into the hands of the security forces — with their cynical monopoly on so-called ‘lawful’ violence.
Patrick Tibke is a recent graduate of the Southeast Asian Studies program at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London